Although estrogen, progesterone, and leptin are the more popular hormones, insulin and cortisol are major players, too.
Insulin is produced by the pancreas and helps manage sugar levels, while cortisol is a steroid hormone (also known as the stress hormone) that primarily manages metabolism, the immune system, and stress responses. When these two important hormones get out of whack, energy levels, eating patterns, and sleep quality may be affected.
The mechanism of action of cortisol is twofold. It stimulates gluconeogenesis—the breakdown of protein and fat to provide metabolites that can be converted to glucose in the liver—and it activates antistress and anti-inflammatory pathways. Here are five easy ways to ensure that cortisol and insulin are operating in perfect harmony.
Did you know that sleep deprivation increases the risk of diabetes? This is due, in part, to the fact that lack of sleep affects the body’s ability to respond to insulin, therefore leading to an increase in sugar and cholesterol in the blood, in turn increasing the risk of diabetes and other diseases.
Sleep deprivation may also kick the stress response into high gear, flooding the body with norepinephrine and cortisol, which contribute to insulin resistance as well. To prevent this dangerous domino effect, be sure that you are getting enough quality sleep.
Ensure that your sleep environment is as dark and quiet as possible, and make an effort to catch at least seven to eight hours of z’s per night. To reduce stress before bedtime, it’s helpful to eliminate screen time, as well, staying away from the news, work emails, and other things that kick our stress response into high gear. For those who experience chronic insomnia, falling asleep to relaxing music or guided hypnosis may do the trick.
2. High-Quality Protein
Another easy way to balance your hormones is to consume a decent amount of high-quality protein. When we consume protein, we enjoy a nice release of hormones that ease insulin sensitivity and ward off hunger pangs.
Eating adequate amounts of protein at each meal, especially at breakfast, helps us feel more full and satisfied. When cortisol levels are too high, a lack of protein in the diet may be a culprit. To step up your protein intake, simply add more eggs, fish, yogurt, and grass-fed beef to your meals and snacks.
3. Whole Foods
“Whole foods” is a term that gets tossed around often, especially in health-conscious communities. But… what are whole foods, exactly, and why are they important?
By definition, a whole food is one that’s been processed as little as possible (making it more “whole”). In addition, these foods are free of artificial ingredients and substances, such as additives, dyes, and added sweeteners and flavors.
How does this affect hormone levels? Overly processed foods, like most pastas, rice, breads, and carbonated beverages increase blood sugar levels which, in turn, stresses the pancreas (the hub of insulin production). In addition, foods with a high glycemic index (most processed/packaged foods), lead to inflammation and high cortisol levels.
For the sake of your hormone health, kick the processed junk to the curb and treat yourself to high-quality, organic fruits, veggies, nuts, grains, seeds, and legumes.
4. Stress Management
It sounds like common sense, but it is absolutely necessary to keep an eye on your stress levels if your hormone levels are a concern. In fact, women in particular are prone to higher-than-normal stress levels, which can wreak havoc on estrogen, cortisol, and insulin levels.
Cortisol itself can influence the entire system, affecting everything from estrogen to insulin. High cortisol levels can even prevent the body from creating an adequate amount of serotonin (the “happy” hormone). Frustratingly, increased amounts of cortisol can lead to lack of sleep which, in turn, leads to stress, which leads to lack of sleep, and the cycle goes on and on and on.
To hop off the hamster wheel, try taking “peace breaks” throughout the day. This can be as simple as practicing light yoga in the morning to start your day off right, sipping some calming green tea after lunch, and enjoying an unwinding meditation at the end of a busy day.
5. Know Thyself
To identify hormone imbalances, you must first know your body inside and out – its cravings, it’s moods, its sleep patterns, everything. When we become more mindful of our bodies and emotions, we can more easily notice when something feels “off”. Some common symptoms of insulin imbalance include:
- Irregular periods
- Weight gain, especially in the belly
- High blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Darkened patches on skin
- Shakiness dizziness
- Rapid heartbeat
- Increased hunger
- Chills and sweating
And signs of cortisol imbalance include:
- Aches and pains
- Weight gain
- Skin irritation and bruising
- Fertility issues
- Excessive hair growth (in women)
It’s helpful to keep a daily diet and activity journal to more easily observe any noticeable changes in health. Make an effort to jot downshifts in mood, food cravings, libido, and changes in diet, especially in relation to other factors that are going on in your work or home life. Physical symptoms of high morning cortisol are rapid weight gain in the face, increased thirst, high blood pressure, and changes in mood.
Insulin and cortisol are always talking to you. They tell you about your energy levels and the various subtle changes in the body that are results of hormone imbalance. These are two systems that we can control to a large degree by improving our food choices, quality of sleep, and stress levels for the sake of balancing the entire hormone system as a whole.